Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Budgeting Without Being a Dick (or an Asshole)

 A few years ago, I read a vacation post by a blogger-who-shall-not-be-named that really pissed me off.  Said blogger retired in his 30s, has a net worth in the millions, and prides himself on being uber-frugal.  In this post, he described taking his rather large family to a museum that let visitors set their own admission price.  His chosen price?  $2.

Not even $2 per person.  $2 for his family.  And he didn't just list this as a budget line item - he bragged about the "good deal" he had gotten.

 I think I vomited a bit in my mouth when I read that.  I love the idea of pay-what-you-can attractions and events, because they enable people whose means are limited to participate, without having to ask for a special discount or feeling ashamed about being unable to afford the full price.  But the flip side of this is that the people who can afford to need to pay more.  Not brag about being an asshole who only pays $2.

When I was revamping my budget recently, I kept thinking back to this post.  And even though I feel frustrated and financially vulnerable at the moment, I really want to ensure that I don't start behaving like a dick just to save money.  As I get used to putting some limits on my spending, there are a few things I'm doing to try to avoid being a dick.

Recognize my privilege:

I'm not budgeting to survive or even to live comfortably on a small income.  I'm not even doing it to make sure I have enough to retire when I'm 65 - I'm doing it in the hope of being able to save enough money to retire as much as 10-15 years earlier than the traditional retirement age.  I am incredibly fortunate to be in this financial situation, and hopefully it will get even better "after COVID", if there is such a thing.  So I do not need to, nor should I, make morally questionable choices to cut my spending*.

Keep tipping:

People who work in the service industry are pretty universally underpaid and are often treated really shittily by customers and employers.  When I started working as an attending, I made a commitment to do a tiny bit to help people in the industry out by upping my tipping game.  I started tipping for takeout, which I had never done before, and I increased how much I tip for delivery and table service.  I increased my tipping rates further when COVID hit, and I try to remember to keep some actual cash on me at all times so that I can still tip at places that only accept cards and don't have a tipping option on their machines (I'm looking at you, Starbucks).   

It is reeeeealy tempting to cut back on this right now.  It's an "easy" way to save money, and it doesn't affect me in the least.  Except...cutting back on tipping at the same time as the service industry has been devastated by COVID is the move of an asshole.  So whenever I don't cook for myself, I maintain the same tipping rate as I used before.

Keep donating:

The charitable donations line in my budget is also a really tempting thing to cut.  Spend less without having to give up anything?  Sounds great!  Except...asshole.  I know that my local charities need the money now more than ever, so I'm treating that line as a fixed expense and not touching it**.

Keep supporting the businesses I believe in (and avoiding the ones I don't):

I recognize that the Walton family and Jeff Bezos aren't affected by whether I support their companies, but it feels good to boycott the businesses that seem to be the worst "corporate citizens".  (You will also never catch me eating at Chick-fil-A.)  And when I avoid the giant multi-nationals, I have more money to spend at local bookstores, the farmers market, and other small businesses.  And my dollars actually do matter (at least a little) to local businesses.

What else should I keep doing, even as I try to cut back?  

*To be clear, this is where I am right now.  For people who aren't earning enough and are legitimately struggling to get by in our brutal capitalist society, do what you need to do. 

**Honestly, I should probably actually increase the amount that I donate, but I'm not quite mentally at that point yet.  Eventually.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Return of the Budget


My relationship with budgets has varied a lot over the course of my adult life.  When I was an undergraduate and then graduate student, I sort of had a budget, but it wasn't a very detailed one:  my approach to spending was essentially "OMG I have no money, don't buy anything that isn't food or shelter".  Once I started working, I had a basic budget for my regular expenses and savings, but I was also doing a lot of contract work, which allowed me to spend on luxuries without having to carefully track my spending.

And then I became a medical student, and any frugal habit I had ever developed was abandoned in an LOC-fueled spending frenzy.  It was absolutely delightful in many ways, but it left me with a $200,000+ debt hangover at the end of nine years of training.  So I put myself back on a budget during my last year of fellowship, and I mostly stuck with it to about the end of my first year as an attending.

It's been five years since I started working, and for the past four I've abandoned the budget.  I've still tried to be mindful of my spending, but I've definitely let a lot of small and not-so-small expenditures creep back into my life.  I hadn't been worrying about this lifestyle creep at all, because as a single physician still living in my apartment from residency (10 years and counting), it wasn't having a huge impact on my ability to save.

And then COVID hit.

Before I talk about the impact of COVID on my finances, I will say that I am incredibly grateful to be someone who still has a secure and well-paying job.  I am thankful that I don't have to worry about my ability to put a roof over my head or food on my table.  And living in a country with universal healthcare - praise Tommy Douglas.  I know I am very fortunate...but COVID has still hurt.

To protect myself, my patients, and my community, I mostly "see" patients over the phone right now.  I do have some in-person clinics, which allow me to actually see the sickest patients, but close to 90% of my work is virtual.  Which is great!  Reduce the spread of COVID while wearing sweatpants and avoiding a daily commute?  I'm in!  Except...the government is paying me about 40% less for phone visits*.  So I'm working just as much, with the added stress of WORLDWIDE PANDEMIC THAT COULD KILL YOU AND EVERYONE YOU CARE ABOUT, while getting paid significantly less.

(Again, I will pause for a moment of gratitude that I am alive, thus-far COVID-free, and still earning more than I need.)

In the beginning, I lived in this lovely delusion that COVID was a temporary thing and that we would resume our regularly scheduled programming within a few months.  Within that delusion, even a significant decrease in my earnings felt okay, because it was finite.  I even ramped up my charitable giving, because I recognized that there were a lot of people and organizations who were much more seriously impacted by the pandemic than I was.  I didn't feel worried, because I fully anticipated that I would be back to generously feeding my retirement accounts before the end of the year.


Apparently COVID isn't going away.  And apparently the pay cut is going to be a long-term thing.

And while I am thankful to have enough, I am also a whole host of negative emotions about the impact the pandemic is having on my earnings and the vision I had for my future.  Where I previously thought I might be able to retire in as little as six years, now retirement is waaaay farther away.  (How far?  I don't really even want to think about it.  Nor do I totally know.  Just much farther than six years.)  I feel a huge sense of loss, but also an emotion I haven't felt about money in a long time:  fear.

As a single person, there is no backup plan.  If I don't earn money**, eventually my savings run out and I don't eat or have a safe place to live.  And while I know that this is unlikely, and far off even if I were to lose my job, I have an anxiety disorder that is quite happy to turn the remotest of possibilities into a reason not to sleep at night.  

So what to do?

I could work more, and I am considering trying to pick up some extra call shifts, but I also recognize that working more will make me more stressed and anxious, which I'm trying to avoid.  Buy lottery tickets?  Marry rich?


I sat down this week and took a serious look at how much I've been earning and spending since COVID started.  And then I cried.  And then I made a budget for myself.  It isn't actually all that strict, particularly given that I only have to care for myself and one geriatric cat, but it is a definite reigning in of my spending.  There is some anxiety associated even with this, as the mere act of putting limits on my spending creates a further sense of scarcity for me.  But I'm hoping that this will fade over time and that the bump in my savings rate will help to make me feel (and objectively be) more secure.

It's worth a try.

*Why, you ask?  Me too.

**Yes, I have disability insurance.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Four Months

I think this is officially the longest I've gone without posting here.

March and April were surreal months.  The day that the WHO declared COVID a pandemic, I went to work like normal, rounded with my trainees, and went to yoga.  The following day, my city started going into lock down.  My clinics were shut down, and except in the most extreme of cases I could only do patient visits over the phone.  Schools and non-essential businesses closed.  My world shrunk down to my apartment, my cats, and my computer.

I wish I could say that I handled things better than I did.  I would like to tell you about the books I read, the fabulous sourdough I baked, and the superfit body I gained through turning my bedroom into a home gym.  But I can't.  What I can tell you about is cheese.  Because for a solid month and a half, my main activity was eating ridiculous amounts of cheese.

I had a lot of time off of work in April, because I was supposed to be in the UK at a conference and on vacation, and instead I spent most of that time on my couch eating.  Partly it was my way of resting after a really busy start to the year, but mostly it was my way of grappling with (or trying to avoid grappling with) the complete upheaval of everything I had previously considered to be stable.  I struggle with uncertainty at the best of times, and I really didn't know how to cope with *waves hands at everything*.  So I avoided, and I numbed as best as I could.

I almost started this next paragraph with "We were really lucky", but I won't, because what has happened in my province and in my country hasn't been a matter of luck:  it's been leadership.  Both federally and provincially, the government has acknowledged the seriousness of COVID and taken steps to protect its citizens.  And as a result, we've been really fortunate to mostly contain COVID.  Even though we're slowly reopening across the country, our numbers have fallen to just over 200 cases a day - for the whole country.

Four months after the start of lock down, life is starting to go somewhat back to normal.  I'm eating less cheese.  And things that were tenuous and uncertain are slowly settling, albeit not as much as they were pre-COVID.  I am so, so grateful to live in the country that I do.

For all of my American friends, I am so, so sorry.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Stay Home

I know that I am mortal.

Anyone who goes through medical training, if they pay any attention whatsoever, is forced to confront this fact.  For me, there is one particular moment from my residency training that brought this home to me.  A woman very close to my age had come into the hospital feeling unwell, and a series of CT scans had shown that she was dying.  The scan report described numbers and dimensions of multiple tumours, and at the end the Radiologist had left a horrifying impression statement:  "Riddled with cancer".  I was the one left to deliver the news to her, and as I read the scan report and thought about what I was going to say, her two children ran past the computer I was working on, laughing as they turned the hospital ward into an impromptu field for tag.

I know that I am mortal, and yet, I don't really KNOW that I am mortal.

A week ago, I was watching the New York Times Coronavirus map, as the outbreak spread closer and closer to the United Kingdom, worried that my conference in April would be cancelled.

Then I accepted that my conference would be cancelled, and worried that if I went to the UK for vacation, I would be quarantined on my return.

Then I worried about going to the States.

Then about going to the Rockies.

It was only about Thursday, as I watched the numbers go up and previously yellow countries turn to red on the map, that the seriousness of this started to hit me.

My first real worry was that I would be called on to provide inpatient care.  I've worked almost entirely outpatient care for the past seven years, and I've never worked inpatient care except under direct supervision, so the idea of managing a heart attack or having to put a breathing tube into someone in respiratory failure fills me with terror.  I will do my best to step up and do whatever I am called upon to do, but I certainly do not want to.

And then, in the last 24 hours, as I've had a quiet day of social distancing at home with the cats, I've had time to reflect on what this really means.  I'm just as vulnerable to this infection as anyone else.  Probably even more, given that I will still be going into the hospital and seeing patients, albeit in a very limited capacity for the foreseeable future.  And my friends.


One of my good friends is a paramedic.

The mother of my godson is an ER doc.

Another good friend is an anaesthesiologist.

Another friend a surgeon.

Many others family physicians.

Many, many others internist who have taught me and with whom I trained.

And fucking idiots are going to the bars for St. Patrick's Day.  Getting their nails done.  Taking advantage of discounted fares to go on holidays.  I understand the denial, because I was there a week ago.  But I am filled with fear at the thought that the people I love, my community, are vulnerable because other people don't want to have their freedom restricted in any way.

I keep saying the same thing over and over again:  Please, for the love of everything, stay home.

Friday, January 31, 2020

One Month In - How Am I Doing?

You may recall that I set some pretty ambitious (for me) goals at the beginning of the year.  So how is it going one month in?

The Good:
"meditating every day"  I have done this!  I was pretty well established with my weekday morning practice, so my main challenge here was finding a way to meditate on the weekends.  Initially, I thought that I would meditate first thing in the morning like I do on weekdays, but this literally never happened.  Turns out, I really enjoy sleeping in and getting a lazy slow start to weekend days, and there is no part of me that wants to start the day on a meditation cushion.  So I have been doing it before I go to bed on weekends, and it has gone perfectly so far.

"I mostly just want to keep working and hoarding money for the future" I had nine days of very busy call this month, so I have done a lot of hoarding of money.  It's lovely for the net worth, but I would honestly like to do a little less earning and a little more resting.

"I want to keep building on the friendships I have."  I've also been doing this!  Even though it's been a busy month, I've made time to go with friends to see our local queer choir, to visit my godson and his family, to go for dinner with my brother, and to go out for dinner and a play with my mom and her partner.  (I think there has been more?  It's a bit of a blur.)  For an introvert who has been busy with work, it has been about the maximum amount I can expect of myself.

The Not As Good:
"I would like to work on keeping up with everything."  This has been very mixed.  One of my proposed ways of achieving this was "just doing the shit now", and I have definitely incorporated this approach into my life, to good effect.  I am constantly trying to spend a few extra minutes to do all the nagging little tasks as they come up, and as a result I'm getting a lot more done without it feeling overwhelming or like a giant burden.  And I'm worrying less about missing things.  Perfect example - I got an application for reimbursement of a work expense, which isn't due until April.  My initial instinct was to put it in my to do pile (I had three months to do it, after all), but instead I took the five minutes required to fill it out, put it in the return envelope, and put it in the mailbox.  And now it's done, and I don't have to worry about missing the deadline for getting money back.

The biggest challenge has simply been that work has been really busy.  In addition to nine busy (and really emotionally exhausting) days of call, I had a week of teaching, and I've taken on a new volunteer position with a national organization (You know.  Because that helps with burnout.)  I've worked at least part of one weekend day every week since the beginning of the year, and still things are slowly starting to build up.  It's frustrating.

And as for my "go to work earlier and stay later" approach?


When I was writing my original post, I had the (utterly ridiculous, I don't know where it came from) idea in my head that I sometimes go to work late or leave early because I'm lazy.  This past month has reminded me that it's actually because I'm tired.  I have a limited number of productive work hours in me every day, and once they are finished, there is no value in me sitting in front of a computer trying to work.  I need a mental break.  So those days when I leave early are usually because I'm mentally shutting down and ready for the day to be over.  And the days when I arrive late are usually because I've been suffering from insomnia and have allowed myself an extra hour to catch up on some sleep.

This has been an important reminder to not be too hard on myself and to extend myself a bit of grace.  I am human, and I can only do so much.  It's also a really important reminder to set boundaries and to not apologize for doing so.  At the moment, I'm having to set some boundaries on fun things in my personal life, but I'm hoping as the year goes on and my call schedule settles down a bit that the boundaries will be more towards work.  I've also firmly decided that I'm going to give up a volunteer commitment at the end of the year (I reeeeealy should've given it up at the beginning of the year, but I got talked into agreeing to another year), which will free up one precious evening every month.

The Total Nope:
"I'm aiming for a regular practice of four yoga classes per week"  At best so far I've made it to three classes in one week.  Things have just been busy, and in some cases (call) I've had to skip yoga, and in other cases (social life) I've chosen to skip yoga.  Part of me is sad, because I really do love it and am seeing a lot of progress, but I'm also making peace with it.  I have a really full life, in mostly good ways, so it's okay that I'm not being absolutely perfect at everything.

So that's the one-month check in.  As for February?  I have three more weeks off call (yay!), during which I'm fully intending to get caught up on everything work related (plausible if I do some work on weekends), after which I have one week on, one off, and one on.  Ugh.  I'm intending to keep up with the daily meditations, as I do think they help keep me present and calm, even though my brain feels squirrely while I'm doing them.  I'm going to try to do three yoga classes a week, as I think it's more realistic than four right now.  And, perhaps mostly importantly, I'm going to keep learning from the process and being kind to myself.  I'm actually doing pretty well at things that are hard, and I deserve to be proud of myself for that.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Four Days into 2020 - Getting My Ass Handed to Me By Call

When I wrote my post about resolutions for 2020, I was very intentional in talking about "experimenting".  I knew that I wasn't going to be able to change everything the moment the clock struck midnight (I am not a magician), so I wanted to give myself permission to do things gradually and to falter along the way.


This was a good thing.

I went back to work on Thursday, and I am starting the year with four days on call.  And what a call it has been.  I've had multiple really sick people spread all over the province, and my pager has been going off seemingly constantly.  Whereas I thought I'd be staying late to keep up with paperwork, I've had to stay late just to get the bare minimum done.

It's honestly a little demoralizing.  I'm only three days into the work year, and I already have new letters that need to be dictated and old letters that need to be edited.  And I've had one night of insomnia, followed by a sleep deprivation-induced migraine.  (Awesome combo)'s a process.  And I know that call is the hardest part of my job, particularly when it's busy call.  So I'm breathing.  And focusing on what I can learn from this experience, rather than on all the things that don't seem to be working.

When I reflect on the past few days, the biggest thing that I'm reminded of is how much I dislike the uncertainty of call.  This isn't really shocking, as I'm a person who hates surprises and likes to have everything planned.  Carrying around a tiny piece of plastic that can scream at me and derail my day without warning is really not my favourite thing.

Fortunately, there are things that I can do to make this easier to cope with.  The biggest one, and one that I've been leaning towards but not quite willing to commit to until now, is not making plans with other people while I'm on call.  In theory, the best thing about home call is the fact that I can continue to live a normal life while I'm call, but in reality, everything is made worse by the pager hanging over me.  I hate planning to meet someone and then having to cancel (or getting called away in the middle of doing something).  It happened on Thursday night when I was planning to meet a BFF for my favourite yoga class, and then it happened again on Friday night when I was supposed to go to a party for people from my residency.  And it sucked.

Not to say that I will never make plans (I would still try to make it to the Friday night party, for example, as the date was fixed), but that I'm going to try to keep my call days as flexible as possible.  Some of this is more mental than anything - trying to not get attached to any idea of how the day will look, but rather take things as they come*.  If the day is busy and I have to work until late, I'm mentally prepared for that.  If it's not and I have time for non-work things, then it's a bonus and I can use the opportunity to go to yoga or wash dishes or sit on the couch with the cats playing Stone Age online with The 76K Project.  (Mostly the latter).

I'm trying to approach my current weekend this way, and so far it seems to be helping (?).  When I got up this morning, instead of trying to map out the weekend, I made myself a list of things from highest to lowest priority.  Providing good patient care was #1, with prepping for my upcoming lectures (which I technically should've had done by yesterday) #2.  While I was responding to pages this morning, I spent a few hours getting the lectures done, thus getting the most important (as well as the most stress-inducing) task out of the way.  And then the pager was kind to me, and I was able to go to an hour of the worst suffering I would ever willingly subject myself to yoga.  I've also managed to get a few other important items knocked off my to-do list, and if I ever stop playing online games I will even do my dishes.

The change in approach and mindset has already made me a little less emotionally reactive when the pager has gone off.  It has still been annoying, and I'm not looking forward to starting my day at the hospital tomorrow, but it's better.  Will it help in the long term?  I guess I'll see...

*I feel like call gives me some sense of what it would be like to be a parent.  Everything is going well, then *BAM*, one kid spills a 2 L of milk on the floor and the other is running around naked drawing on themself with permanent marker.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2020 - Progress, Not Perfection

It has been a few years since I made a New Year's resolution.  In 2017, I resolved to say no to more things, which obviously wasn't enough given the burnout I hit in 2019.  In 2018, I seem to have been in a bit of a dark place in which I thought resolving to do anything was futile, because I wouldn't be able to stick to it anyway.

The past two years have shown me that, under the right circumstances, I can actually make pretty big changes in my life.  In that time, I've greatly expanded and strengthened my social circle, to the point where I couldn't see everyone I wanted to during my two weeks of holidays.  I've started a (somewhat) daily meditation practice and gone to a meditation retreat.  I've been really consistent with yoga, going to 45 classes in the first half of the year and 83 in the second half*.  I've adopted an intuitive eating practice, which has led me to a much healthier relationship with food (and overall healthier eating habits) than I've had in my life.  And I've cut back on my work responsibilities to the point where I am only slightly dreading returning to it tomorrow.

When I look back at the changes I've made, the keys for me have been twofold:  motivation and gradual progress.  I haven't made changes out of a sense that it's what I should do, but rather because I can see how the changes will make me happier and otherwise enhance my life.  The goals I set for myself are personal and are aligned with my values, not things that other people think are important.  I've also started slowly with things (It took me over a decade to develop a regular yoga practice!) and allowed myself to learn from the process of change, rather than thinking that I'll be perfect at a new thing the moment I start it.  As Done By 40 said in a comment on my last post, "Progress, not perfection".

Looking ahead to 2020, my hope is to have a relatively uneventful year.  2019 was a year of tremendous growth and change, but it was also a hard one.  I kind of want to catch my breath**.  I want to continue with my mindfulness practice, and I'm aiming for a regular practice of four yoga classes per week and meditating every day.  I want to keep building on the friendships I have.  My financial situation is really good (No debt!  Lots of investments!), and I mostly just want to keep working and hoarding money for the future.  Overall, I don't anticipate any radical changes in 2020***. 2020, I would like to work on keeping up with everything.  I feel like I'm perpetually behind - on housework, on work work - and I find it draining.  I hate having clutter in my home and 100 dictations to sign off on in my inbox.  I hate feeling like I'm perpetually catching up, only to have new work pile on top of me the moment I finally get through the old work.  And it's not like I'm saving time by procrastinating on things - I have the same amount of work to do, regardless of whether I do it right away or put it off for weeks. really everyone's problem, right?  While the specific tasks may differ, I think we all have an endless to-do list that is never done to our satisfaction.  So, while I'm setting this as a goal, I am also trying to be realistic.  And to extend a lot of grace and compassion to myself.  Because no matter how hard I work, I am never going to get to the bottom of the list.  And I need to make peace with that.

As far as how to do this...I'm going to experiment.  Try something for a while, see how it goes, then keep it or reject it.  I'm not expecting that I will get to the end of the list by midnight tonight and then always keep up with it, forever and ever.  I know it will be a process, and so I'm trying to give myself the time and space (and lots of grace!) to work with the process.  For the moment, I am going to try three things that I think may help:

1)  Going to later yoga classes:  Some of my favourite yoga classes are at 5:30 PM, which unfortunately means leaving work at 4:30 and therefore losing out on a lot of potential work time.  I'm going to try sticking to a regular weekly schedule, with a 7 PM class as my earliest, so that I get an extra hour or so at work at the end of many days.

2)  Coming to work earlier:  My work days start between 8 and 9:30 am (sometimes 10 if I really let myself sleep in) depending on whether or not I have a morning clinic.  I'm going to try to get to work for 8 am consistently so that I'm getting some extra work time first thing in the morning.  As an added bonus, I'm hopeful that the more regular wake up/go to work schedule will be good for my insomnia.

I recognize that I'm proposing to both start later and finish later, which has the potential to simply be too much work.  But I'm hoping that this will allow me to get most, if not all, of my work done during the week, thus giving me weekends completely off to recharge.  I'll see how it goes...

3)  Just doing the shit now:  I'm human.  I procrastinate.  Sometimes epically.  Yesterday I logged onto a conference website, thinking it was the last day for early bird registration, and when I discovered that I still had two weeks, I logged off.  I did very quickly log back on and register for the conference (also booked my Airbnb like a superstar), but my initial impulse was to procrastinate for another two weeks.  I've already started trying to break myself of this habit, as I know it is a huge contributor to the piles of things to do that build up.  So I'm trying to just respond to the email, just put my dishes in the dishwasher, just put away the laundry that I've already folded (instead of it sitting on my dresser until the basket is empty), and just add the item to my grocery list (instead of cursing myself when I get home from the store without it).  Just.  Do.  The.  Shit.

Who knows if this will work.  I like some of the 5:30 yoga classes, so I might cave and go to them.  My bed is very comfortable, so I may sleep in.  Doing the shit gets tedious.  But I'm going to give it a try and see where it takes me.

Any suggestions as I try to get more on top of things in my life?

*At least.  I only track yoga classes for my main studio; I think I did another 10 or so at other studios over the year.

**I feel like I'm tempting the universe by typing this.

***Seriously, I feel like I'm baiting the universe with this post.